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February 14, 2010

The Situational Syllabus


The formulation of a new type of syllabus became inevitable when dissatisfaction was targeted to the Grammatical Syllabus. Even though the Grammatical Syllabus has been used with considerable success over a long period of time, many modern linguists have come to see grammar as the wrong organising principle for a syllabus, since effective language use cannot be ensured unless it is contextualised, involving ample social interaction. Therefore, the most commonly proposed alternative is to take situational needs as the starting point and thereby to construct a Situational Syllabus to replace the Grammatical Syllabus. The Situational Syllabus did a lot to fill the vacuum that was caused by the drawbacks of the Grammatical Syllabus. The Situational Syllabus, however, is not as firmly based as the Grammatical Syllabus on any well formulated view of language. Nevertheless, like its precursor the Grammatical Syllabus, it has also proven its importance as being the most extensively used component for the Multi Syllabuses.


The major characteristics of the Situational Syllabus are as follows:

Theoretical Bases: The central argument for the Situational Syllabus is that language is always used in a social context and cannot be fully understood without reference to the contextual settings. According to Wilkins, the Situational Syllabus is constructed on the analyses of situations and behaviours. The Situational analysis can enable the syllabus designers to predict in what situations the learners are likely to use the language and teach accordingly. The Behavioural analysis aims to consider the likely behaviours or activities that the learners may conduct in different situations.

Contents/Selecting & Sequencing the Contents: In the Situational Syllabus the content is specified and ordered in non-linguistic terms (i.e. excluding grammatical items, vocabulary topics, or functions). The content of language teaching is a collection of real or imaginary situations in which language occurs or is used. It (the content) often takes the form of dialogues and conversations. The learners are expected to practice the dialogues and memorise useful expressions and patterns. The grammar and the vocabulary derived from the situations are not themselves the driving force behind selection. However, the grammar and the vocabulary are also taken into account when the language forms in situations are selected, since these two components receive primary attention in almost all types of syllabus design and development. Thus the main components of the Situational Syllabus can be analysed in the following order:
  1. a list of language situations, and
  2. description of the grammatical and lexical items of each of these situations.
Objectives: Situations are the organizing principle of the situational syllabus. A situation usually involves some kinds of transactions in a specific setting. The language occurring in the situation involves a number of a probable segment of discourse/dialogue. The primary purpose of a situational language teaching syllabus is, thus to teach the language that occurs in the situations. Examples of such probable situations include:
  • At the hotel,
  • At the travel agent,
  • At the post office,
  • At the restaurant,
  • At the garage,
  • At the airport,
  • At the shopping mall,
  • At school, and so on.
Procedure: In the initial stage of teaching, the teacher has to analyse the probable linguistic situations in which the learners may use the language. Next he has to analyse the probable behaviours/ activities that the learners may carry out in different situations. In order to conduct the behavioural analysis, the teacher must rely upon a set of parameters for describing the significant features of situations. These include:
  • the physical context in which the language event occurs,
  • the channel of communication (i.e. spoken or written),
  • whether the language activity is productive or receptive,
  • the number and the character of the participants,
  • the relationship between the participants, and
  • the field of activity within which the language event takes place.


The Situational Syllabus offers guidelines for organising language teaching materials on a relatively limited scope, yet it has proven to be beneficial in several ways:
  1. Wilkins considers this type of syllabus more efficient and more motivating than the Grammatical Syllabus because it hinges round practical needs rather than abstract analysis.
  2. It is a learner-centred syllabus, since it takes account of the learner and his needs.
  3. It enables the learners to behave appropriately in various social contexts.
  4. It pays more attention to learners’ speaking ability in contrast to the Grammatical Syllabus.


Even though the Situational Syllabus is widely used as a replacement for the Grammatical Syllabus to organise language teaching materials, there is still strong criticism against this model:
  1. The main disadvantage of the Situational Syllabus is that it is less appropriate for the students of general English, since it tries to teach language in the context of some specific linguistic situations, which cannot be considered as an all-encompassing yardstick for fulfilling the learners’ general language needs. That is, because it is difficult to guarantee that one specific situation will be useful in another.
  2. Although some situations have a predictable script, unanticipated things can happen in any situation, requiring a change of script or topic. Wilkins points out, that a physical situational setting such as “At the Post Office” or “In a Restaurant” does not necessarily predict the language forms that will be used. One may go into a restaurant not to order a meal but to ask directions to a nearby museum or to change money for a telephone call. While certain language functions will most likely occur in certain situational settings, physical setting cannot really predict language use. It depends on who the students are and where they are learning. Thus determining the appropriate list of situations for a general class is difficult.
  3. Grammar is dealt with incidentally, so the Situational Syllabus may result in gaps in learners’ grammatical knowledge.
  4. The Situational Syllabus does not provide us with clearly defined criteria for the sequencing of teaching items. Little is known about the language used in different situations, so selection of teaching items is typically based on intuition.
  5. The Situational Syllabus is probably most appropriate for short-term special-purpose courses: giving prospective tourists survival skills or preparing service personnel, such as waiters or waitresses, to deal with routine requests or fire fighters to handle emergency situations. It has limited potential for the language learner interested in acquiring global language proficiency. For this reason it is generally used as the component of a Multi Syllabus rather than as the central organising principle for a general language syllabus design.


In verdict, it can be remarked that The Situational Syllabus is useful only in certain circumstances. It does not have the potentials to offer a comprehensive solution to the problems of language learning for the students of general English. Yet, its contribution to syllabus design cannot be denied altogether, since it is the first syllabus type to consider the situational needs as important criteria for language learning, which are no less important than the knowledge of grammar.

The Situational Syllabus


Barman, Dr. Binoy, Zakia Sultana, and Bijoy Lal Basu. ELT: Theory and Practice. Dhaka:
FBC, 2006. 24-38.

“EFL Syllabus Design.” Finchpark. 2008. Dr. Andrew Finch. 22 August 2008

“Grammatical, Situational and Notional Syllabuses.” Eric Education Resources Information Center.
2008. ERIC. 22 August 2008<http://eric.ed.gov/>.

Harmer, Jeremy. The Practice of English Language Teaching. 3rd ed.
England: Longman-Pearson,2001. 295.

“How to Develop a Situational-topical Syllabus.” SIL International. 1999.SIL International.
22 August 2008 < http://www.silinternational.org/>.

“Language Acquisition and Syllabus Design: The Need for a Broad Perspective.”ADFL Bulletin.
1984. Association of Departments of Foreign Languages.22 August 2008

“Travel English Dialogs Based on a Situational Syllabus.” Takamatsu. 2008.
The Regents of Takamatsu University. 22 August 2008
< http://www.takamatsu-u.ac.jp/nlibrary/kiyo/no34/no34ikeuchi.pdf>.

February 3, 2010

The Innate Theory


Noam Chomsky
The Innate Theory (also known as Innatist Theory, Nativist Theory, Rationalist Theory, Mentalist Theory) of language acquisition was developed in the mid-20th century (1959) by the renowned American linguist Noam Chomsky. It emerged as a reaction against the Behaviourist language learning theory, and contradicted its model at almost every point of basic structure. Although Chomsky is credited to be its originator, in reality, the theory has been around for hundreds of years. Chomsky’s proposal just breathed a new life into the old concept and confirmed its formalisation. Though radical in many ways, it was able to lay out some major connotations for understanding language acquisition. In the last few decades, the amount of discussion about first language acquisition in the context of the Innate Theory has grown considerably.

Theoretical Bases

The theoretical assumptions underlying the Innate Theory are as follows:
  • Language acquisition is innately determined; that is, children are biologically programmed for language learning. They develop language in the same way as other biological functions. They start to speak at roughly the same age and proceed through roughly the same stages.
  • Children are born with a special ability to systematically discover for themselves the underlying rules of a language system. This special ability enables them to learn the complexities of language in a relatively short period of time.
  • Environmental differences may be associated with some variation in the rate of language acquisition.

Evidence Used to Support Chomsky’s Innate Theory

Eric Lenneberg's concept of a critical period is the best evidence for Chomskian proposal. Lenneberg suggested that there is a biologically pre-determined period of life during which language can be acquired most easily. Beyond this time language becomes increasingly difficult to acquire. Through this statement Lenneberg provided a strong support for the Chomskian claim that language is innately determined and in the existence of an innate universal set of grammar. This is still a controversial view, and many linguists and psychologists do not believe language is as innate as Chomsky argues. Yet, he presents abundant evidence to support the view that the form of language is innate:

The Poverty of the Stimulus Argument: The first argument in favour of this statement is concerned with the logical problem of language acquisition, which the behaviourists failed to recognise. This argument is known as The Poverty of the Stimulus Argument. The argument states that:
  • Virtually all children successfully learn their native language at a time in life when they would not be expected to learn anything else so complicated.
  • The language the child is exposed to in the environment is full of confusing information and does not provide all the information which the child needs.
  • Children are by no means systematically corrected or instructed on language by parents.
  • When parents correct, they tend to focus on meaning rather than form, and children often ignore the correction and continue to use their own ways of saying things.
  • Children learn to use very complex language structures without instruction or large numbers of examples of all the linguistic rules and patterns that they eventually know.
  • Children produce words they never heard before (e.g. puted), this cannot be the result of imitation, but must be the result of a creative process.
Language Universals: To justify this argument Chomsky opines that, language is not a set of habits, but it is rule-governed; subsequently, the mind is responsible for the perception and processing of linguistic data because it is genetically equipped with a device that make language acquisition possible. This mechanism is referred to as LAD (Language Acquisition Device). LAD consists of Universal Grammar (UG) and all the languages are basically formed with that universal ground. UG does not claim that all human languages have the same grammar, or that all humans are programmed with a structure that underlies all surface expressions of human language. Rather UG provides a set of basic grammatical elements or fixed elements or fixed abstract principles that are common in all natural languages, which explains how children acquire their language(s) or how they construct valid sentences of their language in a relatively short period of time. Chomsky defined these abstract representations of grammatical rules as language universals. Chomsky says that there are two types of language universals:
  1. Substantive Universal: The substantive universals consist of fixed features of language like phonemes or syntactic categories like nouns (N) and verbs (V). Let us consider, for example, some distinctive phonological features. One of them is “voicing” that differentiates /p/ from /b/ in the pronunciation of such words as pin and bin, or “nasality” that makes the difference between /b/ and /m/ in bad and mad.
  2. Formal Universal: The formal universals are the general principles which determine the form and the manner of operation of grammatical rules of particular language.
Chomsky further argues that the universal principles that children discover form their core grammar. On the other hand, the rules or features that are not determined by universal grammar form their peripheral grammar. Rules of core grammar might be easier to acquire than the rules of the peripheral grammar, since the latter are thought to be outside of the child’s programmed instruction.

Counterarguments on the InnateTheory

To some extent, the Innate Theory seems complementary to the Behaviourist Theory, whose major principles are further clarified and then developed by the innate theorists. The following arguments represent the fact that some of the precepts of the Innate Theory should be refined:
  • Language acquisition is not totally of inborn nature nor is it just a matter of biological make-up. There is also an undeniable effect in language learning coming from the social environment since infants grow up biologically in a social environment from which they cannot be divorced. The presence of a mother and father in front of a child establishes a natural social environment.
  • The psychologist Jerome Bruner opined that language acquisition not only depend on LAD but also LASS or Language Acquisition Support System. It is possible that children have inborn capability to follow certain grammatical principles, but their acquisition of words depends crucially on their environment. For example, English children learn English because; their Language Acquisition support System is English.
  • The use and influence of imitations and reinforcements cannot totally be denied or disregarded by saying that they destroy or relegate the possible creativity in language learning. For example, the role of imitations and repetitions cannot be wholly denied in such areas like learning vocabulary items and structural patterns.


Although this theory provides what some claim is a reasonable explanation about acquiring language, this theory lacks sufficient evidence. Some of the cases against this theory include:

Firstly, the LAD is an abstract concept and lacks adequate scientific support.

Secondly the theory is heavily based on the learner’s linguistic competence which is again abstract phenomenon.

Thirdly, the theory placed more emphasis on the linguistic competence of adult native speakers, but not enough on the developmental aspects of language acquisition.


Chomsky's work has been highly controversial, rekindling the age-old debate over whether language exists in the mind before experience. Despite its few limitations, the Innate Theory is rich enough to provide a substantial idea of how a child acquires his/her first language.


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Cook, V[ivian] J[ames]. Chomsky’s Universal Grammar: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell,
1988. 1-2.

Foley, Mary Ann. “Cognitive Psychology.” Microsoft Encarta. DVD-ROM. Redmond: Microsoft,2005.

“Innatism.” Wikipedia. 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 September 2008
< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innatism >.

Konieczna, Ewa. “First Language Acquisition”. Uniwersytet Rzeszowski. 2008. univ.rzeszow.pl.
20 September 2008 <http:// www.univ.rzeszow.pl>.

“Language Acquisition.” Wikipedia. 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 September 2008
< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_acquisition>.

“Language Acquisition Device.” Wikipedia. 2008. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 20 September
2008< http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Language_acquisition_device>.

Scovel, Thomas. Psycholinguistics. Oxford: OUP, 1998. 17-18.

“Second Language Teaching and Learning.” Macquarie University: Australia’s Innovative
University.2008. Macquarie University. 20 September 2008
< http://www.ling.mq.edu.au>.

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